If you're like me, you can easily sit down at the computer in front of a blank page titled “My Failures in Life” and go to town. In my case, among the many eventual pages of this document, you would find summaries of rejections from colleges, rejections from grad schools, rejections from publications, and to job applications. And that’s just the start. My son’s Little League team that I coached last year was immediately eliminated in the playoffs—my son’s basketball team, which I also coach, lost our only overtime game by one point; that stung. And more.
As an academic, this is the time of the year in which issues of rejection and failure are brought to the forefront. This is when students who have applied to graduate schools find out if they got in.
Every year, I support as many students as I can in an effort to help get them jobs and entry into high-quality graduate programs. As a professor, my job isn’t done when I grade a student’s final exam. My job includes any and all efforts to help our hard-working students get on a career path that will allow them to make a positive mark on this world. This is just as important to my job as grading a test, creating a syllabus, or lecturing on how to compute standard deviation. So when students find that they have been rejected by graduate programs, it affects me. It’s a tough season; even some of our best students get fully rejected. It’s simply that competitive.
Of course, I don’t ever want my students to give up. Ever. They are not allowed to. In 1993, the famed North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jimmy Valvano looked a national ESPN audience in the eye and, his body riddled with cancerous tumors, said this: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
He may not have been a research psychologist with a Ph.D., but Valvano knew what he was saying. And when I run into failure in my life (which is, as I’ve indicated, quite often), I do my best to unleash my inner "Jimmy V."—and I advise you to do the same.
Why was Valvano right? Why should we stand up in the face of adversity? Is this really an effective behavioral strategy? Was it adaptive for our ancestors as they dealt with all kinds of threats on the pre-agrarian savanna? Heck, yes, Jimmy V. was right. And there is a lot of work in the field of psychology to support his message. Below are 5 scientifically-documented reasons to endorse a Valvano approach to all aspects of life:
If you are a successful human (and if you’ve read to this point in this article, then you surely qualify), you need to look failure in the eye and rise above it. The most successful people are also often the ones who have experienced the most failure. Failure and rejection hurt, but they are not show-stoppers. They are important features of life that help us grow stronger and that help us succeed into the future. When Valvano had a body full of cancer and months left to live, what did he do? He started the Jimmy V. Fund to help raise a ton of money to help facilitate scientific cancer research. Some success story, actually.
So if you have run into some kind of failure or rejection lately, I say this to you: Foster your belief in yourself, foster your belief in close others who support you, and unleash your inner Jimmy Valvano: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
References and additional resources